SALT LAKE CITY — When Leslie Kelen recalls the stories his parents told him of their experience prior to fleeing Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War, he speaks with reverence, sorrow and conviction.
His father, along with scores of other Jewish men, was forced into slave labor at the frontlines of military combat zones during violent battles resulting in the deaths of thousands of people at the hands of Nazi Germany.
“They used them in minefields and areas where they would be vulnerable to being killed,” he said. “And most of them were killed.”
Elsewhere, some 400,000 Hungarian Jews were loaded onto cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp where most perished.
His father was among the fortunate few who lived through dangerous indentured servitude and eventually was able to escape. Kelen’s mother somehow also managed to survive persecution, meeting his father and getting married along the way before moving to the U.S. in 1959.
Kelen conveyed his story Sunday to an audience of about 100 people at Congregation Kol Ami — a Jewish synagogue in Salt Lake City’s East Millcreek community. The temple held a panel discussion on the Holocaust as part an interfaith event series aimed at educating people of all religious backgrounds about issues of faith.
Kelen was among five people who relayed their stories of their respective parents’ Holocaust survival experiences. He said keeping the stories alive could help remind others of the importance of recognizing and addressing wickedness before it’s forgotten, and repeated.
“As a community, we have a difficult time struggling with the nature of evil (and) what human beings are capable of doing to each other,” Kelen said. “It’s psychologically difficult to comprehend and morally difficult to face.”
He noted that such events have profoundly influenced the lives of thousands of people who have settled in America. He said understanding the impact of one of the world’s great travesties can offer wisdom for the generations that follow.
“It’s pain that teaches us,” Kelen said. “Through pain we learn what it is to be empathetic, and what it is that other people go through. If you don’t face the pain and admit it into your life, you’re almost incapable of trying to see the world from somebody else’s perspective.”
Holocaust, also known as Shoah (which means catastrophe in Hebrew) refers to the mass genocide perpetrated by German leader Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II. Six million Jews were killed, including many who were placed in concentration camps across Europe.
Audience member Vivian Dowsett said listening to adult children recount the struggles of their parents’ survival struck a nerve that she hopes can lead to better appreciation of their “historical and cultural pain.”
“This forum created a connection that all of us share,” she said. “What is our moral and social obligation when we see systematic annihilations because of the color of (one's) skin, religious beliefs or whatever?”
She said raising awareness of such atrocities with each new generation could help encourage empathy, compassion and responsiveness.
Event organizer Betty Yanowitz said the goal was to remind the community of the significance of history because “those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it."
“This isn’t hypothetical. We are repeating it in Africa and many other places,” she said.
Educating people about the principle of the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam — “repairing the world ” — is another step toward preventing the mistakes of the past.
“That is our obligation as Jews,” Yankowitz said.
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